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A Nominee's Guide to the Best Raleigh Bites

Outstanding Chef Contender Ashley Christensen's Top Spots

Maggie Borden

April 24, 2018

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Outstanding Chef Award Nominee Ashley Christensen
Photo: Johnny Autry

Between magazines, websites, and your friend of a friend who knows everything about the latest restaurant you just have try, it can be hard to distinguish a first-rate recommendation from the bottom of the barrel. That’s why we went straight to the source: this year’s nominees for the James Beard Outstanding Chef Award, a group of celebrated tastemakers you know you can trust. Read on for top picks from Ashley Christensen, of Raleigh's lauded AC Restaurants, for unbeatable bar food, a must-have meat-and-three, creative craft cocktails, and beyond.

Date Night

My significant other and I are such fans of really solid chill time, when we get to sit down and have a “just the two of us” meal out. Our most regular date spot is a place in our neighborhood called the Player’s Retreat. It’s essentially an old college bar from the 50s—it has all of the original charm, and all of the food is great bar food made from scratch. When we’re feeling a little fancier and celebratory, we go to Herons at the Umstead Hotel in Cary. I believe chef Steven Greene is one of the most talented folks cooking today. His creativity is simply limitless, and he elevates the potential of ingredients to another level.

Cheap Eats

For cheap eats, we like love to visit chef Sunny Gerhart at St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar during the daily “$1 oyster happy hour” from 5:00 to 6:00 P.M. Beyond the oysters, the regularly priced dishes are also a great value, as they are hearty and packed with robust and unique flavors inspired by Sunny’s family’s early days in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans. This shop also packs a secret weapon: general manager Sean Umstead is making some of the most creative cocktails in the area. Beyond their deliciousness and potency, they each have a unique connection to the stories being told by the food at St. Roch.

Breakfast

The best breakfast in town is served at Mecca, Raleigh’s oldest restaurant. Southern classics are cooked by the family who founded Mecca in 1930. They roll all day, serving meat-and-three-ish offerings through the dinner hour, and they even have a full bar and a late-night menu. Of all the meals there, breakfast is my favorite. These folks know how to cook a perfect egg, and they’ve been doing it for nearly nine decades.

Drinks

William and Company is my favorite bar to frequent these days. The drinks are built on really thoughtful infusions and combinations, and the descriptions alone convince me to go down the path of spirits I might not generally order. The drinks are delicious, and the glass-front, natural light–filled room (a former trophy shop) just feels good. Just what I need for cocktails to feel even better than they already do. Additionally, I believe the bar’s founder, Liliana Contreras, is a bartender to watch as we look to the future of the craft cocktails.

Bakery

Boulted Bread changed the game in Raleigh in my opinion. These folks are right on the fringe of downtown, and they offer wholesale and retail. As someone who travels and cooks all over the country, I’ve always been in awe of the multiple, incredible fresh-baked wholesale bread programs in larger cities. Boulted is the first downtown Raleigh property to build an incredible artisan bread wholesale portfolio that would thrive in any great city. They’re milling heirloom grains in a mill from New American Stone Mills. Their work honors the restaurants to which they sell in the warmest way, and allows folks to serve incredible bread without adding that expense and footprint to their already tight margins and spaces. I sincerely believe their work is upping the restaurant game in the city of Raleigh. In addition to their breads, they offer incredible retail sweet and savory pastries. They’re so damn good, that last Sunday, one of the most talented pastry chefs in our area (Krystle Swenson of Crawford and Son) joined us in our home for a last minute brunch with a group of visiting chefs. Everyone brought something, and she brought a box of warm pastries from Boulted. When she cracked the lid to the box, everyone just naturally migrated to it (picture the cartoons where a delicious aroma lifts people off of their feet and they levitate to its source). It was a moment where I felt such pride for the many incredible offerings of Raleigh,. I sure am glad these guys are here, elevating the both the Raleigh bread scene and Raleigh restaurant scene.

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.